BEVERLY HILLS, CA.-
Totems have pan-cultural associations throughout diverse cultures around the world, and these vertical forms have been used throughout history as tribal talismans representative of the spirit world and genealogies, ancestors and documenting societies. Herb Alpert, in his Black Totem series, has focused on this language of sculpture for the past 20 years and addresses this geneaology in his Black Totem sculptures.
Alperts process for creating these sculptures is manually intensive. He works with wet clay first, molding it into vertical forms ranging from 8 to 36 inches tall. From these, he selects the ones he will make into larger sculptures that will range from 12 to 20 feet in height. These larger works are also hand formed with the wet clay. When completed, molds are made and then the sculptures are cast in bronze and patinaed black. Alperts totems read abstractly yet suggestions of recognizable forms appear; an eagle form seemly emerging from the top of one, or human shapes surfacing. That their forms evolved naturally, organically, and are formed by the artist without carving tools further convey their biomorphic qualities.
Alpert was, for the most part, inspired by the totems unique to the Pacific Northwest of North America such as those of the Haida, Tlingit, Kwakiutl tribes, whose totem poles were made of single pieces of cedar, some up to forty feet in height. For the Haida tribe, these ancestral totems are, and have been for hundreds of years, the essence of family and tribal identity and sometimes were used to mark entranceways to their lodgings, as depiced in the photograph, circa 1880, from Ketchikan, Alaska. The totem poles of the Pacific Northwest function as crests of families or chiefs commemorating major events or occasions, represented by hierachies of different creatures, animals or various supernatural beings (each signifying different human attributes). In Native American tradition, a totem is an entity or symbol that watches over or assists a family, clan or tribe. Totemism, derived from the Ojibwe language, refers to that which is kinship-related, and it is also a belief system that is frequently associated with shamanistic religions. Totems act as familiars or guides accompanying one through life, both in the physical and spiritual worlds. Alperts forest of totems subliminally engage these theories and histories.
Alperts attraction to this sculptural form is understandable as it contains an enormous history. The black patina of his totems is evocative of ancient primal forms and the contemporary material belies an ancient prehistory. The pan-cultural consciousness invested into these dark sculptural forms also relate back in time to Egyptian obelisks as much as they evoke the Modernist sculpture of Constantin Brancusi - specifically Brancusis Endless Column (1937), Alberto Giacomettis extended figures and early Louise Bourgeois sculpture. Alperts work shares with Bourgeois sculpture an affinity to animistic entities or guardians. Bourgeois first major body of sculpture were slender wooden sculptures reminiscent of pillars or tribal effigies (she travelled to Africa in the late 1940s), which later developed into totemic constructions a fusion of architecture with the body, its substitution for the body, or phallic surrogates. Alperts biomorphic totems are composed within the gallery space in a forest-like environment, yet while each is singular, they gain intensity as a group, amplified with Alperts use of black for the totems.
Totemism was also a key element of study in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of religions, especially for philosophers such as Émile Durkheim, who concentrated his studies on indigenous societies. Drawing on the identification of social groups with spiritual totems in Australian aboriginal tribes, Durkheim theorized how human religious expression was intrinsically founded in the relationship to a group. Sigmund Freuds Totem and Taboo first published in 1913, employed the application of psychoanalysis to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. Given a revisionist post-Colonial perception of tribal and indigenous cultures these perspectives now seem curiously Eurocentric. Author Edward Saïds Orientalism has been one of the most influential texts reddressing Eurocentric perspectives which has further generated a globalized dialectic. The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss posited in his text Le Totémisme aujourdhui (Totemism Today), that totems are chosen arbitrarily for the purpose of making the physical world a comprehensive and coherent classificatory system, but also recognized that the concept of totemism is an artifact of western thinking imposed by anthropology.
For Alpert, these towering spires are like frozen smoke, or akin to the ineffable notes of music captured and held still as interminable forms. These abstract, yet formal structures and their process of creation are fluid in a way that jazz is, making intangible compositions physical. Alpert who is also a musician and composer, would not deny that there is a focused fluidity in the making of these sculptures consistent with the intuitive, harmonious and spontaneous moves and swings embodied in his approach to his music.
In conjunction with the exhibition a new photographically illustrated book Herb Alpert: Black Totems, with an essay by Hunter Drohojowska, will be published by Curatorial Assistance, Pasadena, to be distributed by D.A.P. Advance orders may be placed with the gallery.
The exhibition is on view at Ace Gallery
Beverly Hills from February 4 through May 25, 2010.